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Love Supreme

Why the cross is so much more than a symbol

Charles F. Stanley

The cross is one of the best-known symbols in the world today. Crosses are displayed on church steeples and walls, embossed on the covers of Bibles and books; we fashion them out of precious metals to wear proudly around our necks. But in the first century, the cross was a Roman instrument of execution, something to be feared.

Photograph by Levi Brown

How did an object that was once a symbol of cruelty come to represent Christ’s supreme love for us? In Galatians 1:4, the apostle Paul succinctly summarizes what Jesus accomplished on the cross. He “gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.” In this short passage, we can learn three things about the Father’s supreme love for us.

Christ suffered voluntarily. Jesus “gave Himself” on the cross (v. 4). Many people today think Jesus was a victim of the Jewish religious leaders and the Roman government. However, at one point in His ministry, Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Then He added, “No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father” (John 10:18). Clearly, Jesus was not a helpless victim. How could the Maker and Sustainer of heaven and earth ever possibly be under the authority of His creation? 

Throughout human history, men and women have experienced horrific physical and emotional pain. What made Christ’s suffering unique was His experience of bearing the sins of the world as God’s wrath was poured out on Him. The holy Son of God, who had never known sin, took all our sin upon Himself “so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24). This was the cup He dreaded as He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, but drinking it was the only way to accomplish God’s plan of redemption. 

Jesus voluntarily went to the cross as an act of obedience to the Father. His death was not a tragic betrayal but the predetermined plan of God, and Jesus endured the shame and agony of the cross for the joy set before Him (Acts 2:23; Heb. 12:2). And what was that joy? He foresaw the day when, having accomplished the redemption of mankind, He would be reunited with the Father in glory.

Jesus suffered for our sins. The concept of Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice is clearly foretold in Isaiah 53, which was written centuries before Jesus died: “Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed” (Isa. 53:4-5).

And in the New Testament when Jesus was beginning His ministry, John the Baptist identified Him as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). All the previous lambs that had been sacrificed throughout the ages were just a shadow of the one perfect Lamb of God, who came to offer the final, fully sufficient sacrifice for sins.

To some people, this may seem cruel and unnecessary. After all, since He’s God, couldn’t He just decide to forgive sinners? The answer is no. You see, God will never do anything contrary to His nature, or else He would cease to be a holy and just God. Forgiveness without justice would eradicate righteousness from heaven and earth. The Lord must remain holy, and His justice requires vindication. 

Sin leads to death—eternal separation from the God who is love and the source of life, joy, peace, and rest. As the apostle Peter wrote to the church, “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18). 

Our salvation is not cheap. Although we receive it through faith, it was purchased for us by the precious blood of Christ as He hung on the cross, suffering for our sins. No one took Jesus’ life from Him; He gave it up after His redeeming work was done. 

Christ offers us His salvation. The cross was a rescue operation. Jesus suffered and died “so that He might rescue us from this present evil age” (Gal. 1:4). Before we can perceive the priceless value of His salvation, we must understand our hopeless condition. We all begin in a state of spiritual death, with no power to bring ourselves to life. But “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Salvation is totally the work of God. He’s the one who brings us an awareness of our sin, opens our eyes to understand that Christ died to save us, places a yearning in our hearts for His salvation, and gives us the faith to believe in Him. 

Christ’s supreme love reached down to rescue us from our hopeless condition. How in the world can we neglect so great a gift? Christ has accomplished everything for us on the cross, and all we have to do is respond in faith. We have nothing to lose by yielding to God’s call, and everything to gain.

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